JULY, 2019

MoonWing, monotype with mixed media, 22.5 x 15 inches

Interpreting Art

“My work originates from a deep belief in the sanctity of the earth, and in the underlying unity of everything in our universe. Over time, I have developed a vocabulary of nature-inspired personal symbols through which I attempt to express this essential idea.”

– from my artist statement

People often look at a piece of art like Moonwing and want to know, “What does it mean?” In my artist statement, it says that I use symbols in my work. So, literal-minded people might think each one has a single definitive meaning. Interpreting art would be something like reading a sentence, with each symbol representing a specific idea. And in fact, for a few centuries, art was made to be viewed in almost exactly that way.

Religious symbolism was a huge part of the reason that art was so important throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Art was literally full of symbols, which helped people, most of whom could not read, to understand the teachings of the church. However, it was all pretty straightforward and specific. The symbols were common throughout the art of the time period, and people understood what they meant.

Stefan Lochner: Madonna of the Rose Bower, c. 1440 – 1442. Oak, 50.5 x 40 cm. 

Here’s an example of just a few of the many symbols in Madonna of the Rose Bower, above:
“… The white and red roses in the bower … are Marian flowers: red stands for both love and suffering, while white is for purity…. The forbidden fruit which Adam and Eve ate is traditionally depicted as an apple… In taking the apple Christ confirms that he is the ‘new Adam’ and has assumed his mission to redeem humanity.” (How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters, by Patrick de Rynck)

By contrast, “Instead of the one-to-one, direct-relationship symbolism found in earlier forms of mainstream iconography, the Symbolist artists aimed more for nuance and suggestion in … personal, half-stated, and obscure references…”

(“Symbolism Movement Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2019TheArtStory.org)

Hope, George Frederick Watts, 1885

Watts, a leader in the Symbolist movement, said that his painting, Hope, above, “suggest(s) great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart.”

A New Kind of Symbolism

About 1880 – 1910, a different kind of symbolism emerged. In the new Symbolist Movement, meanings are not spelled out, or set in stone. There are no established rules for deciphering the images. Consequently, the viewer becomes more of a participant, having to rely on their own intuition and experiences to construct meaning. I like to say that it’s more like interpreting poetry than prose.


Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


“Symbolism is the language of the Mysteries. By symbols men have ever sought to communicate to each other those thoughts which transcend the limitations of language.”

~ Manly Hall


So, What Does it Mean?

The upshot here is that the symbols in my work are meant to “transcend the limitations of language.” (Manly Hall, above). If I made up a dictionary for you, it would take all the fun out of it, and reduce interpreting art to a dry, academic exercise. What I attempt to do is to “use natural symbols to convey universal concepts.” (Belsebuub, below) Art, to me, is a visual language that goes beyond words. I believe it’s a purer, more fundamental form of communication.

“The same principles that make a spiral galaxy also create the structure of a seashell and unfurling of a fern. This is why ancient spiritual people used natural symbols to convey universal concepts.”

– Belsebuub, Return to Source: How Enlightenment is the Process of Creation in the Universe in Reverse

If you’re interested in symbolism, I have posted about it before, in different contexts. Matters of the Heart is about the origin and meaning of the familiar heart symbol, and Sacred Circles looks into why the circle has been an essential symbol since ancient times.


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